Written by Dick Dorworth
Mount Saint Elias was named in honor of an Old Testament prophet, given the name by the Russian explorer Vitus Bering who, presumably, was a religious man or at least wished to be viewed as such. Denali, meaning “the high one,” is the Athabascan name commonly used by climbers and Alaskans for the highest point in North America, but William Dickey, a 19
th century gold miner in Alaska, named it Mount McKinley after a presidential candidate. William McKinley had no connection to mountains or Alaska but supported the gold standard, while his opponent supported silver. The name McKinley was nothing more than PR for keeping the price of gold high.
The Muir and Salathé walls on El Capitan honor the two Johns whose surnames they carry, and those men’s reverence for the natural world.
Words have meaning but names have power, as the saying goes, and it is a matter of consequence to name a mountain or a climbing route. A name also reveals more about the mindset and values of the namer than the subject.
Royal Robbins, Tom Frost and Chuck Pratt made the first ascent of the Salathé Wall in 1961 and named it, in Robbins’ words, to honor our beloved predecessor. It was the second route up El Capitan after the Nose, and, in keeping with Robbins’ career as America’s preeminent rock climber of his time, it broke new ground in both style of Yosemite climbing and naming of routes. The Salathé honored a person and his values rather than a physical feature, and the route was climbed in one push, unlike the Nose.
Four years later, when Yvon Chouinard and TM Herbert climbed the fourth route on El Cap, Herbert praised Muir as a hero of nature and conservation, so far ahead of his time in the environmental movement that the climbers wanted to recognize him. Robbins today says that he would have named it the John Muir Route, not the Muir Wall, but it was not his to name.
Other El Cap route names are simple geographic descriptions – West Face, West Buttress, the East Buttress and the East Ledges Descent®and others are not so easily grasped by the uninitiated: Tangerine Trip, The Central Scrutinizer, Grape Race, Magic Mushroom, Bermuda Dunes and Realm of the Flying Monkey.
And that’s just one rock; granted, a big one. Every climbing guidebook contains a wild and wide range of names of routes: bizarre, boring, inspired, offensive, subtle, in your face, humorous and macabre. Themes often run through the names of an area, not all of them exactly wholesome.
Idaho’s City of Rocks has the Decadent Wall, with a range of names guaranteed to offend somebody. The National Organization for Women took some hostile interest in its sexist flavor, and Dave Bingham’s latest guidebook to the City includes this caveat: “In the early 1980s Utah climber Jay Goodwin coined the ‘decadent’ theme, using sexually-oriented names for about a dozen climbs. I decided to omit some names because they are idiotic and were not given by the first ascentionists.”
Bingham’s guidebook lists these names: Dikes on Harleys, Kibbles and Bits, Adolescent Homosapien, Divine Decadence and FDC. The original guidebook had more specifically listed: Dykes on Harleys, Nipples and Clits, Adolescent Homo, Devine Decadence and [unprintable]. Other original route names included Rancid Virgins, Dimples and Tits, Preteen Sex, Abortion on Parade, Life Without Sex and Estrogen Imbalance. (I recently encountered Goodwin having dinner in Almo, the closest community to the City of Rocks, enjoying looking through the charming homework papers and drawings of his 6-year-old daughter. I neglected to solicit his thoughts about the Decadent Wall routes or whether he thought his daughter would better appreciate Dad’s original names or Bingham’s tidied-up ones.)
The drug culture significantly altered the consciousness of American climbing. The double-entendre in the group of climbers who named themselves the Stonemasters is one of my favorites, and their contribution to pushing the limits of climbing is certainly mind-expanding. Among the many routes with drug-inspired names (not all of them, by any means, done by the group called Stonemasters) are Left, Right and Middle Peyote Cracks in Joshua Tree, Colombian Crack and White Line Fever at the City of Rocks, Mescalito, Magic Mushroom and Pyschedelic Shack in Yosemite, and Drug Nasty (aka Dean’s Dream), Lethal Dose, Panama Red, Cocaine Crack and Powder Up the Nose at Smith Rocks. The popular Tuolumne route Oz is not named after the famous wizard. It is on Drug Dome and connects to the Gram Traverse.
If a name has power, then the more one understands about the name the more power it has. Some of my own perspective on this issue is included here because I believe my experience is like that of other climbers, and clarifying history is crucial.
At one time my friends and I were taken with naming routes according to a hidden message. For instance, in 1972 Sibylle Hechtel and I named a route on Mount Mitchell in the Wind River Range Ecclesiastes. Joe Kelsey, who might be called the John Muir of the Wind River Range, was not amused, pleased or in favor of the name because of the precedent it might set. But neither Sibylle (I believe) nor I are Bible students or, at least in my case, even Christian. We named it because of the great line in Ecclesiastes, “It is all emptiness and chasing the wind,” an apt description of climbing and, one might say, much else in life. The name of the route had nothing to do with Bible thumping or Christian theology. The name stuck in certain circles, but so far as I know it has never been included in a guidebook.
A year earlier Chris Vandiver and I named a route on Lembert Dome in Tuolumne Meadows Truckin’ Drive. It is next to the older route Rawl Drive, named after the Rawl drill which was used in the early days of placing bolts by hand (as was done on both routes). Truckin’ Drive was named after the Grateful Dead song “Truckin'” and particularly for the famous verse:
Sometimes the light’s all shinin’ on me;
Other times, I can barely see.
Lately it occurs to me …
What a long, strange trip it’s been.
In the guidebooks, Truckin’ Drive is misnamed Truck ‘N’ Drive, a misnomer that matters mostly to those who named the route and to those curious about the long, strange trip between the two very different names. A truck and truckin’ are as different as a pair of pants and pantin’.
That same Tuolumne summer Wayne Merry and I named a route on Daff Dome El Condor Pasa from the then popular song by Simon and Garfunkel on their album “Bridge Over Troubled Water,” and, more specifically, the line in it proclaiming, “I’d rather be a hammer than a nail.” The music for this lovely song was actually written in 1913 by the Peruvian Daniel Alomia Robles. Wayne was on lead and very runout when he yelled with great relief that he’d found a chicken head – a knob-like protrusion jutting out from the rock. After he tied it off with a sling and clipped in he said that it wasn’t just a chicken head, it was a condor head. The condor allowed us to pass and we would rather be hammer than nail, and as with Truckin’ Drive there is much lost in that Tuolumne guidebooks call the route El Condor instead of El Condor Pasa.
Undoubtedly many names have morphed into something quite different from the original: poetry in the raw turned to poetry dressed in a mistake or the censor’s burka.
A rock formation at the City of Rocks was once called Hershey’s Kiss because its top resembled one. On the left side of its west face is a three-star overhanging jam crack rated 5.12. Tony Yaniro is credited by Bingham with the first ascent of this fine route, but according to Stan Caldwell, Yaniro did not complete it, while Caldwell found the key to the route in a hidden hold at the crux that, he said, “You ought to see” to make the move. Through a process that can be imagined but probably never completely tracked, both the rock formation and its best route are now known as Odyssey. My favorite routes and route names there are Driving at Night and Just Another Mormon on Drugs, the former because it’s one of the best short 5.9 climbs at the City and its name mimics the title of a book I published at least 20 years after first climbing the route, and the latter because of its cultural humor.
Yosemite’s Crack of Doom was first climbed and aptly named by Pratt in 1961. This led to another intimidating route being named Crack of Despair soon after and even another Crack of Doom, named by Greg Lowe at the City of Rocks. These names are poetry eliciting the feeling of beginning such routes and, of course, inspiring puns. In Colorado’s Unaweep Canyon is a far easier route named Crack of Don, though I have been unable to find out anything about Don.
Every climbing area contains names to suit (or not) every taste intriguing, inspiring, descriptive, confusing, dumb, clever, incomprehensible and sappy. A guide to Oregon’s Smith Rock includes Vomit Launch, Victory of the Proletarian People’s Ambion Arete, Virgin Slayer, Shark-Infested Waters, Silly Boy, Chairman Mao’s Little Red Book and Darkness at Noon.
Utah’s Wasatch Range has Satan’s Corner, Saint Alphonso’s Pancake Breakfast, Nipple Remover, Shadow of Death, Final Prayer Variation, Garden of Eden, Holy Grail, Judas Priest, Lazarus, Missionary Jam, The Rosary and Celestial Ascension. Official religion dominates Utah culture and these sorts of names are only to be expected, as, of course, is the occasional Nipple Remover in any culture.
Every route has a name (except, of course, the few orphaned, nameless ones looking for adoption or at least discovery) of history and personality, thoughtfulness and thoughtlessness. Contemplating its significance and power adds to the meaning and experience of the climb. Discover the stone poetry, the political PR, the hidden meaning, the pun, the idiocy, the crass libido and the refined reverence at the root of the name of the route.
Dick Dorworth lives in Ketchum, Idaho. He spends most of his time writing, climbing, skiing and reading. The best climbing he’s done recently were some routes in Tuolumne last summer that he hadn’t done in more than 35 years, including Truckin’ Drive. The best skiing he’s done recently was this morning (January 2, 2009) on Bald Mountain in Sun Valley.